ANNAPOLIS – During his State of the Union address Wednesday night, President Bush pledged to prevent the study of human embryo stem cells.
Two Maryland lawmakers, however, are scheduled to announce their support for it today.
Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, and Delegate Samuel Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, plan to introduce bills to allocate $25 million in state funds for researchers to study stem cells, including embryonic cells.
Hollinger said the bills would benefit health, economics and science in Maryland.
But pro-life advocates and lawmakers sternly oppose studying embryo cells, setting the stage for what could be a contentious debate.
Hollinger, chairwoman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said her bill will ban human cloning and annually take $25 million from a state tobacco settlement fund to finance stem cell research through a tight screening process.
The Bush administration has frozen federal funds for studying embryonic cells.
Hollinger’s bill, which has the support of former Gov. Harry Hughes and numerous co-sponsors, would allow Maryland scientists to study embryonic cells with public state funds. It would also allow people to donate their embryos, which are kept frozen in fertility clinics, for scientific research.
Stem cells from those embryos differ from adult stem cells, which are acquired from matter like umbilical cord fluid after births.
The Bush administration, like pro-life organizations such as the Maryland Catholic Conference, supports studying adult cells but not embryonic cells.
But studying embryonic cells, scientists say, could help treat and prevent more than 70 diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
About 128 million Americans suffer from one of these 70 diseases, said Susan O’Brien, spokeswoman for the advocacy coalition Marylanders for the Advancement of Medical Research.
Studying embryonic cells could also benefit Maryland economically, proponents said.
Maryland, O’Brien said, is among the top states in the biotechnology industry. According to Bob Eaton, president of MdBio Inc., a Frederick non-profit that supports biotech development, the state has 350 biotech companies and more than 45,000 biotech workers.
Researching embryonic cells, Hollinger said, would further spur that industry because private companies would invest in and capitalize on successful research.
If the state does not commit to embryonic research, Hollinger said, it could fall behind and lose scientists to states — such as Wisconsin, California and New Jersey — that have passed similar bills and others, including Virginia, that are considering them.
“People will go where they prefer to go and where they can afford to do the work they want to do,” Hollinger said.
Hollinger said the proposed state fund would be enough to keep Maryland competitive and is an incentive to keep top scientists in the state.
It would allow them to study some of the nation’s 400,000 frozen embryos — a figure given by the Stem Cell Research Foundation — before many of them are discarded.
“Why is it better to throw those embryos away,” Hollinger said, “than to use them for scientific research?”
Because, opponents of the plan said, studying human embryos is unethical.
Gina Maclean, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Catholic Conference, said scientists should focus their research on adult stem cells. Maclean said the number of embryos that are discarded from clinics doesn’t matter because they belong to people — not science.
“We don’t believe you should economically benefit from unethical research,” Maclean said.
Sen. Andrew Harris, R-Baltimore County, also opposes Hollinger’s plan, saying embryonic research should be funded by the private sector, if anybody.
“I’m against spending public money to do embryonic research,” said Harris, a member of the Senate health committee. “The bottom line is I think it’s unethical to use a human life” that way.
Harris said the argument that a $25 million annual contribution would help spur the billion-dollar biotech industry “doesn’t hold water.”
Harris and Sen. Norman Stone, D-Baltimore County, have co-sponsored a bill to ban human cloning, which has been assigned to the Senate health committee.
No matter the outcome of that or Hollinger’s bill, both parties agree that the debate will not be resolved soon.
“I think there’s so much confusion about stem cell research,” Maclean said. “We could be fighting about this for years and years and years.”